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Analyzing Judith Light's Amazing Performance in 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace'

A recap of the third episode of 'American Crime Story: the Assassination of Gianni Versace.'

by Judy Berman
Feb 1 2018, 4:51pm

Matt Dinerstein/FX

So, are you hooked on this show yet? Honestly, the first two episodes worried me. I loved last week’s American Psycho tribute, but the early scripts still jumped around too much, introducing a huge cast of characters and cramming years’ worth of vignettes about Andrew Cunanan and Gianni Versace into less than two hours. All that exposition made it hard to get emotionally invested in any one story. As soon as you started to care about Gianni and Antonio, there was Andrew bellowing “Gloria” in a stolen truck, or some FBI dope confusing Versace with Liberace.

Last night’s “A Random Killing” was something entirely different—a spare, focused episode and easily my favorite so far. I’ll get to the fact-vs-fiction part soon (promise) but first we need to talk about Judith Light. Who else could’ve played Marilyn Miglin, the wife of Cunanan’s third victim and allegedly closeted Chicago real estate magnate Lee Miglin? She’s a complicated woman. The queen of HSN is sharp enough to realize something’s wrong in her marriage, yet she loves Lee for his belief in her. And yet, her reaction to his murder is so practical! She goes into crisis-PR mode, feeding the police narratives to obscure the reality that a halo of gay bondage magazines surrounded Lee’s body. But there’s pain under the surface. When she finally lets down her guard, the monologue Light delivers about being a “real wife” is heartbreaking.

Darren Criss gives the episode’s other great performance. It’s chilling to watch Andrew slowly turn on Lee, puncturing the romantic veneer of what is actually a business transaction before mocking his powerful prey as he wraps Lee’s face in tape. Does writer Tom Rob Smith sometimes overload his dialogue with symbolism? Absolutely—“Concrete can build, but concrete can kill” is just awful—but the most revealing exchange in a mostly excellent script takes place in Lee’s study, when Andrew psychoanalyzes his host’s plan to build a tower so tall that its observation deck will look down on the Sears Tower.

Andrew sees that the project is really an egotistical power move; Lee protests, unconvincingly, that he’s only thinking of how delighted kids would be by the view. Andrew has a knack for perceiving people’s hidden dark sides, which makes his relationships with the victims he knows personally fascinating. Look for more of that next week. On to the annotations...

Matt Dinerstein/FX

Lee and Marilyn Miglin

They weren’t international celebrities like Versace, but Lee and Marilyn Miglin were well known and loved in Chicago society circles. As Marilyn helpfully points out in the episode, the couple’s story was a classic “American Dream” narrative: Lee was the son of an immigrant coal miner who talked his way into his first real estate job at age 31, rising quickly from there. As Maureen Orth reports in Vulgar Favors, the firm he founded with business partner Paul Beitler built many of downtown Chicago’s most prestigious edifices, including Madison Plaza and the Chicago Bar Association Building.

The Miglins also independently owned over two dozen properties in the city. But Lee’s and Beitler’s grandest ambition, to build a 2,000-foot tower called the Skyneedle that would have been the world’s tallest building, remained unrealized. (The Chicago Tribune published a fascinating article on the project shortly after Lee’s murder.)

Marilyn was a model-turned-makeup mogul whose eponymous cosmetics line—particularly, a perfume called Pheromone—became a Home Shopping Network sensation. Orth notes her complicated personality, citing an associate who observed, “She’s not a cream puff… Marilyn hides it till she needs to bring it out.” When she returned from her business trip to Canada to find her Gold Coast townhouse in disarray, she cryptically told her neighbors, “I know he’s dead and they’ll never catch him. They’ll never find who did this.”

The lack of emotion she displayed in the wake of Lee’s murder really was a topic of local gossip. Marilyn remarried in 1999, but her second husband, the businessman Naguib Mankarious, died soon after, while getting a facelift. A lawsuit caused her to file for bankruptcy in 2007. Nevertheless, she persisted. Over a decade later, Marilyn is still alive and hawking her wares on HSN. (Here’s a video from 2017.)

Matt Dinerstein/FX

Lee’s Murder

The show’s account of Lee Miglin’s murder and its aftermath sticks pretty close to the facts. Yes, Marilyn returned to find a Coke can and an open carton of ice cream in her normally spotless kitchen, while neighbors spotted a ham with a knife stuck in it in the library and signs that a dark-haired man had taken a bath in one of the bathrooms. Lee’s body was found in the garage next to an assortment of gay porn magazines, fully dressed but wearing lacy Calvin Klein bikini underwear, his ankles tied with an extension cord and his face wrapped in masking tape.

What happened before the murder isn’t nearly as clear. Was Lee Miglin a closeted gay man? How did Andrew end up in his home? Did they already have some kind of relationship? An expert told Orth that there was likely a sexual element to the killing. Signs that Cunanan had hung around at the Miglins’ for a while after the crime suggested he knew Marilyn was out of town. And a neighbor named Betsy Brazis spotted Lee talking with a younger man in his kitchen shortly before his death.

An AIDS educator, Brazis also mentioned to Orth that “Lee’s name would come up occasionally as a gay ‘straight’ man” in the support groups she led. A local queer newspaper published an anonymous report that Miglin had been spotted in gay bars, although other Chicago journalists swore to Orth that they tried and failed to find evidence that he slept with men. Meanwhile, Orth plays up Lee’s stereotypically gay characteristics, from his neatness to his effeminacy. These descriptions are kind of uncomfortable.

But the investigation into Andrew’s motive never got far, in part because Chicago law enforcement and other local officials were personally invested in protecting the family’s good name. The murder was declared random. An anonymous city official told Orth, “The case is closed. There’s nothing in the file. His employees loved him. The church loved him. His wife loved him. Case closed.” Twenty years later, the suggestion that Lee was anything less than a heterosexual family man remains controversial. A recent Chicago Sun-Times headline reads, “Revisiting Chicago murder, FX series depicts Lee Miglin as gay, close to killer.”

The piece quotes American Crime Story executive producer Brad Simspon, who explains, ““Our writer, Tom Rob Smith, had to dramatize what we believe happened that weekend starting from the established facts of the crime scene. Based on the evidence, we believe that Lee and Andrew did know each other, and Andrew’s attack, as with all his victims except for William Reese [the man Andrew kills for his truck later in last night’s episode], was targeted and specific.” The implication is that homophobia not only prevented the truth behind Miglin’s death from coming out, but—along with that exasperating car-phone leak, which did happen—also contributed to the FBI’s failure to catch Cunanan before he killed again.

Duke Miglin

Wait, there’s more. Remember Duke Miglin, Lee and Marilyn’s 25-year-old “Hollywood actor” son? Evidence exists that he and Cunanan knew each other before the murder. Although Duke and Marilyn always denied having ever met him, acquaintances of the family told Orth that there was something off about their evasions. Shortly after Lee’s death, Andrew’s friends confirmed to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he and Duke “spoke frequently.”

And, in an interview with Orth, two of Lee’s professional acquaintances related a memorable encounter with the Miglins at United Airlines’ Red Carpet Lounge at LAX, a few years before Lee’s death. “The Miglins were on their way to Hawaii for family Christmas, and were waiting for Duke to join them,” Orth writes. “He finally arrived with a friend, who made a great impression.” When they saw Cunanan’s photo, both confirmed that he was the man they’d met at the airport.

So, what happened to Duke? Well, despite his big break in Air Force One, he didn’t pursue his Hollywood dreams for long. Instead, he got married, had kids and got into the family real-estate business. Last year, Duke insisted to a Chicago ABC affiliate, “There was no relationship whatsoever. A lot of false things were brought up and they were very hurtful, very painful, for me personally and there were attacks on me as well that I really didn't appreciate. And I still don't.”

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